Looking Back: The Asbestos Disaster in Libby, Montana

Although asbestos does not affect nearly as many Americans as it did decades ago, the United States is far from asbestos-free. To this day, a significant number of Americans are exposed to asbestos despite what we now know about the dangers.

It was not very long ago that the U.S. public learned about one of the deadliest asbestos hazards in our country’s history. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a small mining town in Montana became an EPA Superfund site. Residents of the town of Libby continue to die at rates dozens of times higher than anywhere else in the United States because nearly everything in the town has been contaminated with asbestos.

The often unsung hero of this story is a woman named Gayla Benefield. When Gayla worked as a utility meter reader (walking from house to house), she noticed something strange. There were a significant number of middle-aged men home during weekday afternoons, and they all seemed to rely on oxygen tanks to breathe. Over the next several years, Gayla’s father and mother both died at relatively young ages, which was strange in light of her mother’s healthy family history.

Since 1919, the town of Libby had been home to vermiculite mines. Vermiculite is normally a safe product used for soil conditioning, among other things. Vermiculite ore in Libby, however, is contaminated with a highly toxic and friable form of asbestos, which the townspeople knew nothing about. Owners of the vermiculite mines even donated excess vermiculite to be used in playgrounds, football fields and other public spaces.

It would take some time for Gayla to connect the dots, but she eventually did. And when she did, she made it her mission to warn everyone she could find. Unfortunately, most of the town’s residents chose not to listen, assuming that “they would have been told” if the vermiculite was dangerous. Still, Gayla did not give up. She was eventually able to connect with advocates and news outlets from outside the state, and the EPA eventually got involved. In 2002, it was revealed that the death rate in Libby was 80 times higher than anywhere else in the United States.

One of the most common diseases suffered by Libby residents has been asbestosis, and a dedicated clinic has been established in the town. The EPA continues the cleanup effort to this day.

The story of Libby is one about willful blindness and the dangers of trusting corporations to regulate themselves. But thanks to people like Gayla Benefield, Libby is also a story about fighting for the health and safety of those you love.